Practical alchemy

Conscious observance of explicit laws or teachings is only the beginning of practice, or of transformation. The Sufi sage Rumi explains this in the prose introduction to the fifth book of his Masnavi, summarized thus by Franklin Lewis (2000, 37):

Rumi uses alchemy as an analogy. The theories behind the transmutation of metal as learned from a teacher or a book are like the laws of religion. One needs to know these before one can begin walking down the path, but one only comes to see how the theory applies to real life as one walks the Sufi path. It is in the experience of the spiritual path that we actually apply the chemical agents to the metal, as it were. Only by following the path to the end can we turn the actual copper into gold and attain the truth.

The turning signs here begin as alchemical symbols but end in a transformation of practice. A similar point, perhaps, is made in Matthew 19.16-17:

And, behold, one came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?’ And he said unto him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’


There is one life that is good, not one deed that buys you eternal life. To make that one life yours takes continuous practice, incorporating many ‘commandments’ at once for the sake of that life itself and not for some future reward. This passage in Matthew subtly diverts the seeker’s attention from the “teacher” as representative of eternal life to the seeker’s own enactment of it. The Gospel of Thomas is much more emphatic on this point.

A woman from the crowd said to him, ‘Blessed are the womb which bore you and the breasts which nourished you.’ He said to her, ‘Blessed are those who have heard the word of the father and have truly kept it. For there will be days when you will say, “Blessed are the womb which has not conceived and the breasts which have not given milk.”’

Thomas 79 (Lambdin)

The first two verses here are almost identical to Luke 11:27-8. What does it mean to keep the word (logos)? Both the English ‘keep’ and the Greek word for ‘those who keep’ (phylassontes) might suggest guarding it, defending it, keeping it safe. But for a pragmatist, the blessed are those who practice the word, not those who treat it like a possession or a “creed.” It is only through practice that the word as precept can be kept alive, because that is its only means of modifying itself to maintain its intimacy with current situations. Those whose first priority is to guard the logos often end up guarding it against any change, i.e. guarding the text against its own meaning.

The final verse in Thomas 79 throws cold water on the worshipful euphoria of the woman from the crowd, as if to say that persistent practice, and not the fleeting feeling that “life is good,” is the presence of real life.

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